Last week I asked a group in San Francisco the following question, which would be a great opener for your table:
Is science inherently good?
One woman said it certainly is! Look, for instance, at how many people have been helped by modern medicine.
You can probably guess my response.
Can't science be - hasn't science been - used for great evil?
So in my judgment, that means it isn't inherently good. It's neutral, like any tool, and can be used for good or evil.
Now you know what Channuka is.
We tend to get wrapped up in our media's trumpeting of certain values — science, technology, athletics, histrionics, and so on. We are brainwashed into feeling that these things are inherently good.
Channuka is our annual values reset, to remember that context is everything.
(If you doh't believe me, watch this: http://tinyurl.com/tedopticalillusions)
So how do you get the "right" context for your perceptions?
Today's the 3rd day of Channuka; tonight the fourth night. For the five remaining nights, here are five questions to stump your table.
Q1: Which parts of Hannuka are the actual mitzvah, and which parts are custom?
The only mitzvah is to light one light per person per night. All additional lights, songs, games, etc. are bonus-points. "The rest is commentary" as the saying goes.
Q2: Why one per person? What’s the connection between the light and a person?
It says in Proverbs 20:29 “The lamp of God is the soul of a person”. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilnius (the Vilna Gaon) explains that the soul – neshama – has the same root letters as oil – shemen. Just like oil is contained in the wick and rises up, the soul is contained in the body and rises. The flame of the candle is like the light that a person brings into the world when learning Torah or doing a mitzvah. This model gives you the essence of Hannukah; the rest is commentary.
Q3: What’s the best way to “do” Hannuka?
If you want to use the holiday to change yourself, to become a different person, the main thing is to light the candle(s) and use them for meditation or conversation for a half-hour or so. For that precious time, focus on presence not presents. Stop running around, cooking etc for that half-hour and find a way to get yourself and anyone with you involved in the moment and to think about how your Torah and mizvot (a little more or a little better) makes you a brighter light in the darkness of these times. Everything else about Channuka is commentary.
Q4: What language must a Torah scroll be written in? And what's the Channuka connection?
Everyone thinks that the answer is Hebrew. According to the Talmud, a Torah scroll would be kosher if written in Hebrew or Greek – i.e., Greek letters spelling Hebrew words. In other words, we believe that the aesthetics of Hellenism can be made holy. Think about it: Greeks exposed unwanted babies, Jews upheld the sanctity of life.
Be cautious when embracing the arts and sciences — gotta lead with your ethical conscience. Make "pursuing good" your essence and "pursuing beauty" your commentary.
Q5: How are you supposed to spell (C)han(n)uk(k)a(h) anyway?
Your guess is as good as mine.
The rest – the latkes, doughnuts, dreidel and all that – is, as we say, commentary...."Now go and study...."
Hannuka Sameach and Shabbat Shalom
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